I’m growing increasingly concerned about the so-called “Mommy Wars”, but maybe not for the reasons you think. It’s not because the conversation makes some mothers feel small or belittled (though it does), or even because the very existence of this debate when no such conversation happens about men smacks of sexism. It’s because the more ridiculous and vitriolic this media-fueled frenzy becomes, the less possible it is to have an honest and conversation about women’s choices and how they affect our standing in the corporate world.
This struck me sharply in reading Elizabth’s Wurtzel’s recent Atlantic Monthly post, 1% Wives Are Helping Kill Feminism and Make the War on Women Possible. Though some may not like me saying it, Wurtzel raises several valid points. One is that when women give up their economic independence they give up power, and this is a profoundly anti-feminist action. Another is that highly educated women who opt out to raise children do contribute to corporate stigmatization of child-bearing-aged women, who are assumed to be bad bets. Large numbers of senior-level women leaving the workforce hurts the collective, no matter how you slice it.
Nonetheless, we can’t talk about these hard truths without acknowledging that care-giving is indeed an incredibly challenging job and that there are some women who are most fulfilled in that role. Furthermore, one could argue that part of the problem is the childcare in general is not appropriately compensated. Whether children are being cared for by a parent or a sitter, the job is notoriously financially undervalued.
But perhaps the greatest flaw in Wurtzel’s logic is that most women who stay at home are not one-percenters at all. Census statistics show that stay-at-home mothers tend to be poor, under-educated, and unable to secure employment. They do not have nannies, they do not go to Jivamukti yoga, and they don’t get pedicures. They are struggling and would work if they could.
Indeed, Wurtzel’s vision of stay-at-home motherhood is limited to her narrow slice of life. Arguably her brand of working, which is about writing books like Prozac Nation and memoirs about addiction has done no more to help real women in the corporate world than the stay-at-home mothers she villifies in her Atlantic piece.
I’ve written about this before: it seems that issues around working motherhood are written by women who don’t actually work in representative environments. Wurtzel would have found a lot more sympathy with me if she had been able to tell the truth as one who had seen, if not experienced, it up close. But she can’t, because like most writers covering women and work, she’s not in the trenches.
So here it is from one who knows: women do get side-lined in the corporate world after they have kids. There is copious data on this. For every child, a woman’s earning declines 7%. Equally qualified mothers earn just 60% of a father’s dollar. Mothers are less likely to get promoted or receive raises. They are considered bad long-term bets. And almost certainly part of this is because some of our forebearers and contemporaries are choosing to opt-out. Discrimination fueled in part by the choices we make is a significant factor behind the persistent pay gap, and the current brand of workplace sexism that primarily affects mothers.
Can we talk about that without using the term “Mommy Wars”?
- Brilliant, thoughtful New York Times editorial about feminism and the Mommy Wars from Amy Allen at Dartmouth.
- An interesting take on the Wurtzel piece from Jessica Wakeman at The Frisky.
- Joanne Bamberger at PunditMom has a different take on Wurtzel’s piece. I don’t agree with much of what she writes, but she writes it so well that I’m linking anyway.